Remembering legendary Cork composer Seán Ó Riada on the 50th anniversary of his death

Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Cork composer’s death on October 3, Pet O’Connell recalls Séan O Riada’s contribution to music in Ireland
Remembering legendary Cork composer Seán Ó Riada on the 50th anniversary of his death

Seán Ó Riada

“THERE isn’t a day since Seán Ó Riada died that he doesn’t enter my consciousness at least once,” says Cork tenor Seán Ó Sé.

Small wonder, since it was with Ó Riada’s Irish traditional music band, Ceoltóirí Chualann, that Ó Sé’s singing career ignited in 1962 upon the release of ‘An Poc ar Buile’.

Now 85, Ó Sé raised the roof at the National Concert Hall last Saturday, singing that same anthem with a reconfigured Ceoltóirí Chualann as the finale of an all-star concert marking 50 years since Ó Riada’s death.

If Ó Riada, a close friend and best man at his wedding, has remained a profound influence on Ó Sé’s life, the composer’s impact on Irish music and indeed the national psyche is equally significant, half a century since his passing.

“He transformed the way traditional musicians played together,” says Ó Sé, pointing to Ó Riada’s method of showcasing individual instruments within a group, with a nod to jazz improvisation.

“Up to that time, all traditional musicians played in unison and then Ó Riada came along and he had arrangements and the whistles playing, then whistles and flutes, then the fiddles and so on,” he says.

“From his early days and right up to his death he was very interested in jazz. When we would go to Dublin we would go into the GPO, where the RTÉ recording studios were at the time, and if we were early he would sit down and play jazz, which I would enjoy hearing because he was superb at it,” Ó Sé recalls.

Coming amid the céilí band era, Ceoltóirí Chualann’s invigorating approach paved the way for future generations of musicians, several of its members going on to form The Chieftains.

“His legacy would be that there are young traditional groups playing Irish music today who would be only maybe vaguely aware of Seán Ó Riada, but he was the instigator of the way it is played. Groups coming after him have developed it and improved it but the basic idea was his,” says Ó Sé.

In their formal suits and bow ties, Ceoltóirí Chualann also gave the traditional music of the Irish people a new status.

Ó Riada’s eldest son, composer Peadar Ó Riada, recalls how, aged six, he was in awe of the red-carpet grandeur he glimpsed at the band’s 1960 launch at the Dublin Theatre Festival.

“They took the number-one hotel in Dublin, the Shelbourne. It was something completely unique. It was a concert of Irish traditional music on stage that you paid for a ticket to go in and hear. That wasn’t done up to then,” says Peadar.

Along with their recordings for Gael Linn, Ceoltóirí Chualann’s rise to household-name status can be attributed in no small part to their performances on the Radio Éireann series presented by Ó Riada, ‘Reacaireacht an Riadaigh’ and ‘Fleadh Cheoil an Radió’.

Ó Riada’s own reputation had already been secured by his musical score for Mise Éire, George Morrison’s 1959 Gael Linn film documenting Ireland’s journey to independence, and its 1960 sequel Saoirse?.

With its orchestral settings of traditional music and stirring French horn solo, Mise Éire, premiered at Cork International Film Festival, “caught the attention of the whole country”, says Ó Sé.

“Not alone did it raise interest in the music but I think it raised the morale of the country.”

To this day, Ó Riada’s score “rivals the national anthem in the affections of Irish people as an expression of national pride” according to Gael Linn chief executive Antoine Ó Coileáin.

The legacy of Ó Riada, who died aged just 40, extends beyond both ‘Mise Éire’ and the reimagining of Irish traditional music, however.

In a mere two decades of adulthood, Ó Riada’s prodigious creative output crossed musical boundaries, spanning a wealth of choral and orchestral compositions, including his 1957 ‘Nomos No 1: Hercules Dux Ferrariae’. Among his song compositions is the air for Peadar Ó Doirnín’s poem ‘Mná na hÉireann’, since performed by the likes of Jeff Beck, Kate Bush, and recently, Sibéal Ní Chasaide.

As well as holding positions as assistant director of music at Radio Éireann, musical director of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and lecturing at his alma mater, UCC, Ó Riada researched and presented an influential radio series, Our Musical Heritage, opening debate on Irish traditional music in national and global contexts.

Among Ó Riada’s own most-travelled compositions are some of those created after he settled in Cork’s Múscraí Gaeltacht, not far from his mother’s birthplace in Cill na Martra.

Born in Cork and educated in Adare and at St Finbarr’s College, Farranferris, Ó Riada’s move to Cúil Aodha saw him immerse himself and his family in the Irish language and Gaeltacht community, where he brought his influence to bear on the creation of local employment.

There, he formed the male choir, Cór Chúil Aodha, who performed his newly-composed music for the first Irish-language Mass, its public premiere coming in Maynooth in 1967.

‘Ceol an Aifrinn’, commonly known as ‘The Ó Riada Mass’, was the first of three composed by Ó Riada, the last a requiem for President Éamon de Valera, who outlived him.

Wedding Gregorian chant with the Gaeltacht’s sean-nós tradition, ‘Ceol an Aifrinn’ includes ‘Ag Críost an Síol’, whose most recent high-profile outing was Patricia Treacy’s performance on a $4m Stradivarius for US President Joe Biden’s inaugural Mass.

Ó Riada, who died in King’s College Hospital, London, on October 3, 1971, left an indelible mark not only on Irish music in all its diversity, but on the national identity, as his friend, the poet Thomas Kinsella remarked: “It is not often that a single person, however gifted, can alter the character of a nation’s culture. Ó Riada managed to do this.”

Highlights from the National Concert Hall ‘Portraits of Seán Ó Riada’ concerts will be aired on RTÉ One on Saturday, October 2, and on RTÉ Lyric fm on Sunday, October 3, while tonight’s (Friday Oct 1) Nationwide on RTÉ One marks the 50th anniversary of Ó Riada’s death with an hour-long special.

The full two-part concert can be viewed at

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